Ski-Mountaineering Skills: Backcountry Travel

New, important: See article on avalanche training by David Spring.

Ski-mountaineering involves skiing and possibly climbing in the mountain wilderness, far from restaurants and ski lodges. Skiers must not only be able to ski, but also understand techniques of snow travel, avalanche safety, snow camping, first aid and rescue.

In 1937, the Sierra Club adopted the Ski Mountaineering Test as a standard for ski tour leaders and advanced participants. A similar standard was also used by the National Ski Patrol at that time. It forms the basis of the SMS training. Although the latest national standards are used, it is remarkable how much of the 1930s approach is still applicable.

In the 1940s, the University of California published a manual based upon this test used for training in World War II. Edited by David Brower, who was a training officer, this document became the Sierra Club Manual of Ski Mountaineering, last published in 1969. Many more modern books have been published since. The details of gear and ski technique have changed, but not the basic skills for mountain touring.

Here's a list of skills that the well-rounded ski-mountaineer should possess. The books and references listed below will help. See also the links page.
  • Advanced Skiing Ability - While intermediate skiing ability is enough to get started, everyone should aspire to become an advanced if not expert skier.
    • Ability to make advanced (parallel and telemark) turns on moderately steep (black diamond) slopes.
    • Ability on tour to cope with an average variety of snow conditions.

  • Field Navigation - The ability to use properly a topographic map and compass. See draft manual (3.6 MB PDF).
    • Know how to read a topographic map.
    • Know how to use a compass to take and plot bearings on a map.
    • Know how to estimate the difficulty of a route, including time and energy required.

  • First Aid and Rescue -
    • Know the elements of wilderness first aid.
    • Know how to protect an injured person and get help.
  • Snowcraft and Avalanches -
    • Understand how to select safe, skiable routes taking account of sun and wind exposure.
    • Know how the snowpack evolves and how to interpret its history.
    • Know how to evaluate the snow pack by observation and testing.
    • Be able travel safely in avalanche terrain (don't). See article by David Spring.

  • Touring and Snow Camping Ability
    • Be able to tour overnight in the backcountry in winter, skiing with a pack.
    • Be able to camp on snow.

  • Proper Selection and Use of Equioment
    • Know how to keep the pack light while carrying all required safety equipment.
    • Understand the use and repair of equipment in the field.

Selected References

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